My Grandmother is not your usual silent film. The somewhat obscure 1929 Soviet political comedy mixes live action on wildly exaggerated expressionistic sets with puppetry, animation and stop motion photography to offer a scathing critique of bureaucratic excess.
And the 21st century soundtrack, to be performed live Saturday night at the Arcata Playhouse by composer Beth Custer and her band, is not what you might expect for a silent film: Instead of tinkling piano, it tends toward outside jazz improv with Custer's wild clarinet often in the lead.
Custer has been a member of the Bay Area ensemble Club Foot Orchestra since it was founded in San Francisco in 1983. That band made its mark performing music behind silent classics like Metropolis, Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
"We were the first band in the United States in the recent era to start doing live soundtracks to silent films," said Custer, calling from her Berkeley home. Noting that a Boston-based trio, Alloy Orchestra, followed suit in the neo-soundtrack genre, she added, "Then all sorts of alternative bands started doing it -- Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo -- it kind of becomes performance art. [The band is] on stage visible to the audience."
Ten years ago Custer was among a group of local composers commissioned by UC Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive to write scores for films in the archive. "He sent me a copy of My Grandmother. I looked it over and thought it was just wild. I decided to go for it.
"It was intriguing to dip my toe into Russian history and the Soviet regime -- the film was banned upon its release for its anti-bureaucratic content, and the director, Kote Mikaberidze, was banished to Siberia for 15 years. It was heartbreaking. He came out a broken man and never did much other work."
She initially wrote an iteration of the Grandmother score for a trio with jazz guitarist Will Bernard (doubling on accordion) and Erik Pearson on banjo, fiddle and guitar. "Then I decided to go for a larger ensemble like Club Foot -- I wanted more strings -- so now we're a seven member group with a narrator. The narrator sits with us and it's like spoken word." The narrative is actually essential since the film has a lot of text -- signs and banners along with the usual silent era interstitial titles -- all in Russian.
Her score, Custer explained, is partially a framework for improvisation, with the band performing facing the screen, while watching the film. "Certain characters, moods and gestures are assigned to individual musicians. It keeps us engaged with the film, keeps it fresh so it's new each time we play it. We've played it a lot -- all over the world for 10 years now," she said with a laugh. "People are blown away, it's so fast paced, and by all of the Constructivist sets, the animation."
She says the band will warm the audience up with a few tunes from an upcoming Beth Custer Ensemble CD. Details on her projects can be found at www.BethCuster.com.
The Beth Custer Ensemble performs its live soundtrack to My Grandmother at the Arcata Playhouse on Saturday, June 2, starting at 8 p.m. Advance tickets are $16, $14 for Playhouse members. Admission at the door is $18. For more details or to purchase tickets online go to www.arcataplayhouse.org or call 822-1575.